Defense lawyers in the 9/11 case arrived at Guantánamo for a week-long pretrial hearing to find a mold infestation in their top-secret work spaces at the Pentagon’s makeshift, expeditionary war court complex. Navy health and safety inspectors were called to the scene Sunday, Veterans Day.
Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker, the chief defense counsel for military commissions, declared the offices off-limits to defense teams. The offices — which have a classification of “Top Secret-Sensitive Compartmented Information” — sit adjacent to the courtroom on an abandoned airstrip.
Baker ordered the lawyers in the national security case to leave behind their secret materials, including files meant for use at hearings starting Monday, to avoid contaminating other portions of the war court complex, called Camp Justice.
More than 100 war court participants — including the judge, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and family members of 9/11 victims — arrived on a war court shuttle Saturday afternoon from the Washington, D.C., area. Lawyers for alleged 9/11 deputy Walid bin Attash unlocked their offices inside a prefabricated trailer-style building to discover the hazardous substance. All defense teams in the prefab building have a common ventilation system.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“There is fuzzy white and gray stuff, and some of it is brown, covering everything in the office — the files, the carpet, all of the furniture and obviously on the walls. It is clearly a problem,” said Cheryl Bormann of Chicago, Bin Attash’s death-penalty defense attorney. Bin Attash, a Saudi, was captured by the CIA in 2003 and taken to Guantánamo more than three years later.
As a cultural consideration, Bormann has uniformly worn a severe black “abaya,” a cloak donned by some traditional Muslim women, whenever Bin Attash or any of the five men accused of plotting al-Qaida’s 9/11 hijackings attends court. Those attacks killed 2,976 people in New York, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.
Saturday, she found the abayas were crusted with mold.
This weekend’s fungal discovery was the latest in a long-running history of episodic health problems at Camp Justice. In 2016, Baker banned his staff from sleeping in a trailer park at Camp Justice after formaldehyde was found in the air vents. The military now mitigates that problem with a constant stream of generator run air-conditioning, dehumidifiers and fans inside each two-troop trailer.
In 2017, some defenders filed suit against the Pentagon in federal court over Camp Justice health conditions. The complaint is still pending.
Portions of the slow-moving 9/11 pretrial hearings are shrouded in secrecy because the men were held for years in secret overseas CIA prisons, with locations and workers’ identities that are considered U.S. national security secrets. It was in those “black sites” that interrogators waterboarded some of the men and subjected many to sleep deprivation, beatings, dietary manipulation and rectal abuse before their September 2006 transfer to U.S. military custody.
So court pleadings, evidence and some legal arguments are classified, meaning the lawyers prefab-work spaces are SCIFs, for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities.
It was not immediately known how the new judge in the case, Marine Col. Keith Parrella, would handle of the question of what defense lawyers could do without access to classified files and other material not stashed in Top Secret laptops.
Prosecutors have a similar prefabricated SCIF at the site, as does the Trial Judiciary. It was not immediately known if those buildings were also contaminated.
The setback also came as Pentagon contractors with a U.S. construction firm that rebuilt the World Trade Center are undertaking the $13 million phase of a $19 million expansion of the war court compound, called the Expeditionary Legal Complex.
More on the case in our exclusive trial guide.